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Inspired by a recent mod that offers four different landscapes matching the four seasons in the Commonwealth for Fallout 4*, Richard Cobbett penned an article on the passage of time in RPGs for his Rock, Paper, Shotgun weekly columns. In the article, Cobbett investigates the ways the genre both leverages and fails to leverage the concept, on both a mechanical and aesthetic level. Here's a snippet:
Very few people liked Fallout's two time limits (the water chip, and then the second one that nobody talks about), which is why Fallout 2 opted to just fake it and pretend that things were desperate without actually dropping the boot. Pathologic is intimidating enough without knowing that every day you waste screaming (What the fuck is going on?!(is likely to screw you over before you find out. Quest For Glory II is so much less pleasurable to explore when you know you're on a timer for every day that passes, and every few days brings another game-ending menace.
I don't think many people are fans of outright time limits. I know I'm not.
Even so, when I look back on some of my favourite moments, several do involve the passing of time and the ability to do stuff with that. Consortium for instance, the closest to a modern day successor to The Last Express that I've found (sequel Kickstarter coming soon, and I've got my fingers crossed for it) does some fantastic stuff with it, like a murder mystery that has to be complete by a certain point, but doesn't simply drop the boot if you fail. It's like playing through a slightly clunky SF version of 24, where disasters are always happening and piling on each other, and you're right in the middle just trying to keep up. On a smaller scale, I also like games that force you to choose at least some options under pressure, like the Telltale games, or Alpha Protocol, which did exactly the same thing. only had choices matter.
And I like the sense of a world outside the confines of my screen, even if most games that do that tend to limit themselves to one big moment to knock over-confident players off their stride, and then immediately lose interest. The start of Deus Ex: Human Revolution for instance, where taking too long pissing about the Sarif offices leads to the hostages being killed before you get there. Mass Effect 2, where wasting too much time before rescuing the captured crew leads to them being mulched in front of your face. Star Control 2, where the enemy Ur-Quan turns out to be in the middle of a civil war which resolves during your fight. Spoiler: This is not great news.
* I will note that, for now, the "Fallout 4 Seasons" mod only offers four different aesthetic packages, and that players need to cycle between them manually to obtain an experience that matches the in-game passage of time.